The second transition: a false epochal metasenseComment on this story
This is the penultimate week before members of the ANC meet at a policy conference to consider matters that will serve before the ANC’s 53rd conference scheduled for Mangaung in December. Both the policy conference and the Mangaung conference are events of consequence to the organisation and to SA. The expectations are exalted by one of the policy discussion documents whose theme promises the sudden arrival of the new epoch – a second transition.
As it approaches its 53rd conference, the ANC is privileged because it can draw from many lessons of previous experience to illuminate its discussions and debate. Among these experiences are its two consultative conferences that took place in Morogoro, Tanzania, in 1969 and Kabwe, Zambia, in 1985. The Morogoro conference was a milestone in that it enabled the ANC to consolidate the process of regrouping after the Rivonia setbacks, amplify its commitment to a non-racial future by bringing all Congress Alliance revolutionaries who hitherto belonged to the ANC-for-Africans, the Congress of Democrats, the Coloured People’s Organisation and SA Indian Congress, under one organisation. The establishment of the Revolutionary Council consummated the process as it guaranteed that everybody would work under a common political discipline.
Like the Morogoro conference, the Kabwe conference, which took place 19 years later, asserted the crucial importance of unity as an indispensable condition for the realisation of the ANC’s strategic objective – seizure of power. The poignancy of this point was driven home by a letter to the conference, signed by Nelson Mandela on behalf of those who were incarcerated in Pollsmoor and Robben Island prisons at the time. The prisoners were commending their organisation for its demonstrable unity and they were exhorting delegates to do more to improve the quality of the unity of the people. In a nutshell, both of these conferences brought about:
l The reorientation of the ANC towards the acceleration of the Struggle inside SA.
l The restoration and reinforcement of unity within the Congress Alliance.
l The integration of all revolutionaries within the ranks of the ANC’s external mission.
Preparations for the ANC’s 53rd conference are taking place at a time when the organisation is being rewired in ways that effectively render it an inappropriate agency for consolidating the victory of 1994.
Loss of direction and momentum are the defining strands of our contemporary political life. There is a compelling political and strategic case against allowing the current organisational fragmentation and political degeneration to persist.
The changes that are visualised in the Freedom Charter, in the country’s constitution and in other seminal documents of the ANC are in danger of not being realised unless Mangaung helps us to set a clear course out of the current paralysis and rediscover the organisation’s guiding purpose.
One of the most important insights to come from Morogoro, and to which the current ANC leaders and members are heirs, is a passage in the 1969 strategy and tactics document which reads thus:
“To ignore the real situation and to play about with imaginary forces, concepts and ideas is to invite failure.
“The art of leadership consists of setting a pace which accords with objective conditions and the real possibilities at hand.
“The revolutionary-sounding phrase does not always reflect revolutionary policy, and revolutionary-sounding policy is not always the springboard for revolutionary advance”.
This was a timeless warning sensitising revolutionaries to the fact that revolutionary challenges do not submit to impetuous quick fixes, and that it would be unhelpful to adopt a creationist approach to the socio-world, creationism being an idealist doctrine that holds that the world and nature, animate and inanimate, were brought into being by a single act of creation.
I have had the privilege of reading the document, and of listening to people who are making a case for the Mangaung conference to meet the aspiration of being a watershed event by proclaiming that it ushered SA into a second transition.
The case for a second transition is animated by themes which see a disjunction between the political and the socio-economic: “The first 18 years of our transition were about political transformation and the second transition will place emphasis on socio-economic transformation.”
The other theme has to do with securing the revolution against the threat which is allegedly posed by, among others, the judiciary, critical artists, political analysts and the mainstream media.
It is heartening to see that this particular discussion document has ignited what promises to be a frenetic period of discussion and debate in the run up to Mangaung. It is even helping set a useful precedent of encouraging people to interrogate the choice of words.
This is important because words are tools for interpreting what goes on in life.
They help us to develop knowledge about society and politics, and insight into what is going and how things develop. The use of the word transition may well have been an honest exercise in pontification and not influenced by a desire to create confusion.
Morogoro used the word “transition” when it was describing the international context in which the struggle of the oppressed people of SA was taking place then.
It described the epoch as one of transition from capitalism to socialism. It was referring to the systemic rupture whose putative moment is 1917 when Russia got on to the march to socialism. Of note is the fact that the Soviets did not impose arbitrary markers to what is essentially a continuum.
That is why, at the time of the Morogoro conference, 52 years after 1917, the ANC discerned out of that process in Russia, China (1949) and elsewhere, a transition rather than transitions. The current generation of ANC members must be proud to know that it stands on the shoulders of the Morogoro giants who were astute enough to know that their own decision to intensify the Struggle was not in the same order as a transition.
The Kabwe stalwarts, authored the script for the “Decade of Liberation”. They based the script on an empirical-analytical foundation that was both scientifically valid and plausible for a wider audience. At that point, even the authors and practitioners of the system of apartheid were already sensing the reality of the impermanence of the system.
It was the Kabwe conference’s assessment that it was possible to move “From the Venue of Conference to Victory”. 1994 confirmed that ideas, informed by sound theorisation and a correct choice of strategy and tactics, should also been seen as an important causal variable.
With this historiography in mind, will it be correct for Mangaung to unveil a second transition? Should it do so, we shall have made Mangaung a second anomalous exception, after Polokwane. We shall have taken a decision based on a serious handicap: the lack of a vocabulary to understand the changes we are going through, including those directly authored by ourselves.
The Mangaung conference will have been a watershed event in its own right, if it helps the movement to rediscover a sense of purpose and to articulate a vision and a narrative into which the generality of the SA population can subscribe.
Such a vision must capture the imagination of especially the youths – a sector to whom the future belongs.
n Mufamadi is a former ANC NEC member and is director of the School of Leadership at the University of Johannesburg.